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Recollections of Thirty-nine Years in the Army
Chapter I


First Affghan War—Chatham—Fort Pitt—Supernumeraries—How appointed— Gazetted— Breaking in—Orders of readiness—Ship inspected—Embark—First days on board—Typical characters—Warmth—Our "tub"—Reduced allowances—Conditions on board—Amusements for men—For officers—"Speaking" ships— A dismasted vessel—First sense of responsibility—Indiscipline—Neptune —On board—Table Bay—Shore boats—Cape Town—Vicinity—Official duties— The ship Lloyds—An "old friend "—The 25th Regiment—The contractor— Botanic Garden—Eastward—Mutinous crew--Land ahoy—Terrible news—The Hooghly.

IN 1841 British and Indian troops occupied Cabul; but throughout Affghanistan the aspect of things political was alarming. In Scinde the Ameers were defiant and hostile. The Punjab in a state of disturbance and convulsion; law and order had ceased; isolated murders and massacres instigated by opposing claimants to the throne left vacant in 1839, and since that time occupied by a prince against whom the insurrectionary movement was now directed by chiefs, some of whom were inimical to British interests.

Military reinforcements on a large scale were dispatched from England. Great, accordingly, the activity at Chatham, then the only depot whence recruits and young officers were sent to regiments serving in India. The depot then at Warley was for soldiers of the Honourable Company's service.

Into the General Hospital at Fort Pitt were received military invalids from India as from all other foreign stations. There they were treated for their several ailments; thence discharged to join their respective depots, or from the service on such pensions as they were deemed entitled to by length of service and regimental character. Then the period of engagement was for life, otherwise twenty-one years in the infantry, twenty-four in the mounted branches.

There young medical men nominated for appointment to the army underwent a course of training, more or less long, according to individual circumstances, for the special duties before them; meanwhile they received no pay, wore no uniform; they dined at mess, paid mess subscriptions, and were subject to martial law.

Professional education included requirements for diplomas, and in addition, special subjects relating to military medicine, surgery, and management of troops. Nominations for appointments were given by old officers or other men whose social position was a guarantee in regard to character and fitness of their nominees for the position sought by them; certificates by professors and teachers under whom they studied were submitted to the responsible authority [Sir James McGrigor, Bart., Director-General.] at the War Office, with whom rested their selection. Thus in effect a combined system of patronage and competition was in force.

With anxious interest a small group of expectants awaited the arrival of the coach by which in those days afternoon letters and evening papers from the metropolis were conveyed. Eagerly was The Gazette scanned when, close upon the hour of midnight, the papers were delivered. Great was the pride and rejoicing with which some of our number read the announcement relating to them; great the disappointment of those who were not so included. The regiment to which I had the honour of being appointed was the 3rd, or "Buffs," the depot of which formed part of the Provisional Battalion then occupying Forton Barracks. [The date of appointment as Assistant Surgeon, June 8, 1841. My diplomas L.R.CS.E.; M.D. St. Andrews: both April, 1840.]

The duties assigned to young medical officers were unimportant— initiatory rather than definite in kind. Careful watch and superintendence on the part of official seniors gave us an opportunity of learning various points relative to practice, as well as to routine and discipline, to be turned to account—or otherwise—in the career upon which we were entering. But the process of "breaking in" was not without its disagreeables. Courtesy towards young officers on the part of their seniors, military or medical, was a quality rare at Chatham, but where met with in isolated instances was the more appreciated, and remembered in subsequent years. The "system" of training in force tended rather to break than bend the sapling.

Thus did three months pass away. Then came an order of readiness to embark with the detachment of recruits next to sail. Although about to proceed with those pertaining to what was now "my own regiment," official regulations required that my appointment to charge of them should have the authority of "The Honourable Court of Directors," and that to obtain it, personal application must be made at their old historical house in Leadenhall Street—a formality which was gone through with ease and success. This is what the appointment in question implied:—Not only did I receive the free passage to which I was entitled, my daily rate of pay [7s 6d] running on the while, minus £s deducted "for messing," but was privileged to occupy the second best cabin on board, and at the end of the voyage to receive in rupees a sum equivalent to fifteen shillings per head for officers and soldiers landed, and half a guinea for each woman and child. In those "golden (lays" the sterling value of the rupee was at par.

The ordeal of "inspection" was duly performed, the requirements on board declared "satisfactory," the formal report to that effect transmitted to the authorities. My personal knowledge of those requirements was absolutely nil. How much more definite that of other members of the Inspecting Committee, was soon to be judged of. For example: side or stern ports there were none, deck ventilators being considered sufficient. Food stores comprised casks of salted beef and pork; tins of soup and bouill, potatoes and other vegetables, some dried, some tinned; pickles and lime juice, bread, otherwise hard biscuit, destined ere many weeks had elapsed to become mouldy and honeycombed by weevils. There were bags of flour, peas, and raisins; an ample supply of tobacco; also of rum and porter, to be issued to the troops as a daily ration. The water tanks and a series of casks on deck had been filled—so it was said—from the Thames below London Bridge, when the tide was at its lowest.

The day of departure arrived. The detachment of which I was an unit marched away from Chatham Barracks, through Rochester, Stroud, and so by road to Gravesend. There it was conveyed on board the Indian; twenty-four hours allowed us to settle down on board; the ship then taken in tow by steamer; we are on our voyage.

A fortnight elapsed; we were no farther on our way than off the coast of Spain. The novelties of first experience afforded subject of observation and thought : those which most impressed us, the clear moonlight, the starry galaxy of the heavens, the Milky Way, the cloudless sky, the phosphorescence of the undulating sea through which our ship slowly glided; the masses of living things, chiefly medusae, that floated fathoms deep in ocean. During daylight many land birds flew over us or rested on the rigging.

Small though our party was, it comprised its proportion of men typical in their several ways. The commander of the vessel, soured with life, disappointed in career, tired of sea life, but unable to quit his profession. One of the ship's officers, a young man of deeply religious convictions. An ancient subaltern, inured to the chagrin of having been several times purchased over by men of less service but more fortunate than himself in worldly means. The lady's man, pretentious and vapid, given to solos on a guitar; the instrument adorned with many coloured ribbons, to each of which he attached a legend; his cabin decorated with little bits of "work," cards, and trinkets, for as yet photographs had not been invented. The irascible person, ready to take offence at trifles, and in other ways uncertain.

A month on board; the Canary Islands faintly seen in the distance. Already heat and stuffiness 'tween decks so unpleasant that carpenters were set to work to cut out stern ports for ventilation. Our progress so slow that with all sails set a ship's boat was launched, in which some of our numbers amused themselves by rowing round the vessel.

Two months, and we still north of the Equator. Various reasons given for tedious progress, among others light airs, contrary winds, adverse currents. But none of these explained the fact of our being passed by vessels, some of which, on the horizon astern of us in the morning, were hull down on that ahead ere daylight vanished. That our ship was alluded to as "a worthless old tub" need now be no matter of surprise.

Not more than one-third of our distance to be run as yet got over prospects as regarded the remainder by no means happy. The unwelcome announcement made that all hands, including crew and troops, must submit to reduced allowance of food and water. Of the latter, the full allowance per head per day for cooking and all other purposes was seven pints, now to be reduced to six. No wonder that the announcement was not received with tokens of approval.

Looking back to conditions as described in notes taken at the time, the contrast so presented between those which were then deemed sufficient for troops on board ship, and those which now exist may not be without some historical interest. Space 'tween decks so limited, [The hammock space per man was 9 feet x 1½] that with men's hammocks slung, those who on duty had to make their way along at night were forced to stoop almost to the attitude of the ordinary quadruped. The "sick bay" on the port side, close to the main hatch, directly exposed to rain from starboard; except a canvas screen, no separation between the quarters of unmarried and those of married; no separate accommodation for sick women or children; no prison set apart for the refractory. All over the ship myriads of cockroaches; these insects, especially lively at night, supplied to men and officers excitement and exercise, as, slipper in hand, they hunted them whenever the pale light given by the ship's lamps enabled them to do so. Cleanliness of decks and fittings was to some extent effected by means of dry scrubbing. The use of Burnett's Solution ' substituted the odour of the compound so named for that of humanity. By means of iron fumigators in which was burning tar, the atmosphere of 'tween decks was purified, due precautions taken to minimise the risks of fire attending the process. Tubs and hose on deck supplied ample means for the morning "souse."

A carefully chosen library provided for the use of our men was placed on board by the Indian authorities; it was highly appreciated and generally made use of. Among the troops, games of all sorts were encouraged, their selection left to men's own choice. In working the ship ready hands were at all times available. Gymnastics and feats of strength were in high favour, and so, with the routine of guards, parades, inspections, and so forth, daytime was filled up. In the evenings, songs, recitations, theatrical performances, and instrumental music were indulged till the bugle sounded "lights out."

Officers had their ways of passing the time. They included games, gymnastics, bets, practical jokes (of all degrees of silliness), cock fighting, wild and dangerous adventures in the rigging, and on Saturday evenings, toasts, then usual on such occasions, enthusiastically "honoured." A weekly newspaper was set on foot; the works of Scott, Shakespeare, and Pope, among other authors, carefully studied, and discussions, more or less profitable, held on their contents.

Sighting, signalling, and hailing ships was a favourite amusement as opportunity occurred. By some of those homeward bound we dispatched letters, with passengers on board others we exchanged visits, strange as such ceremonies may seem to those now acquainted only with modern twenty-knot floating steam palaces. While paying such a visit to a ship five months out from China, we learned the "news" that Canton had been captured (on May 25-27, 1841) by the forces under command of Sir Hugh Gough.

In near proximity to the Equator we came upon a ship, the Cambridge, disabled, her topmasts carried away in a sudden squall two nights previous. The resolve to stand by and give assistance was quickly taken. Boats were lowered, parties of sailors and recruits, accompanied by some officers, were soon on board. Within a few hours defects were made good as far as that was practicable; meantime night had closed in, a somewhat fresh breeze sprung up, clouds obscured the sky, and so the return to our ship was by no means accomplished without danger.

The distance to be got over was still great before the ship could reach Table Bay and renewed supplies obtained. The health of all on board had so far remained good, notwithstanding all the drawbacks experienced. The likelihood, however, that this happy state of things might suddenly come to an end became to me a source of what was the first sense of official anxiety with which I had been acquainted.
Excepting two somewhat elderly non-commissioned officers, specially put on board the better to ensure discipline among our recruits, all others were as yet but partly tutored in military duties and order. Unwilling obedience had from the first been shown by several of their number; then came irregularities, quarrels, and fights among themselves. Nor were the few married women on board ideal patterns of gentleness, either in speech or behaviour.

Among the crew were men whose antecedents, so far as they could be ascertained, were of the most questionable kind, and whose conduct on board had, from the first, been suspicious. Between them and kindred spirits among the recruits, it appeared that an understanding had been come to to have what they called "a disturbance" on board. Those intentions having come to the ears of the officers, with the further information that fully ninety men were implicated, preparations were made for emergencies: arm-racks fitted up in the saloon; fire-arms burnished; ammunition seen to; non-commissioned officers instructed as to their duties. But an occurrence which now happened distracted attention from the so-called plot, whether real or imaginary did not transpire.

Our entrance into tropical latitudes, some three weeks previous, had been duly announced by "Neptune," who, selecting the period of first night watch for the ceremony, welcomed us from amidst a flare of blue lights on the forecastle, on our coming to his dominions. Having done so, he returned to his element; his car a burning tar-barrel, which we continued to watch as it seemed to float astern, until all was darkness again. On board, "offerings" had to be made to the sea-god, half-sovereigns and bottles of rum, sent to the fo'c's'le, being those most appreciated.

While yet in the first degree of south latitude, the sea-god, accompanied by his court officials, announced their arrival on board, the whole personified by members of the ship's crew, appropriately attired in accordance with their respective official positions. The ceremony of "initiating" the "children" was quickly in progress, the chief ceremonies connected therewith including shaving, "bathing," besides some others by no means pleasant to their subjects. One of our young recruits strongly resisted the ordeal through which several of his comrades had passed. He succeeded in making his escape from his captors, and quickly mounting the ship's railing, thence plunged into the sea, to the consternation and horror of us all. The vessel was instantly "put about," a boat lowered, but search for him was in vain. The occurrence was, indeed, a melancholy outcome of what was intended to be a scene of amusement. But the spirits of young men were light, and ere many hours had elapsed, the song and dance were in progress, as if the event had not occurred. A Court of Inquiry followed in due time, and then the incident was forgotten.

We were now approaching Table Bay. Great was the interest and admiration with which we looked upon Table Mountain, as its grandeur became more and more distinctly revealed. Hardly less was our estimate of the Blue Berg range, by which the distant view was bounded. Soon we were among the shipping, and at anchor.

Our ship was soon surrounded by boats, that seemed to come in shoals from shore; some conveying fruit and curiosities for sale, others suspected of carrying commodities less innocuous in kind. But sentries, already placed at gangways and other points on deck, prevented traffic between our men and the small craft. The aspect of boats and their crews was alike new and strange to most of us: the former, striped with gaudy colours, red, black, and white; the latter, representing several nationalities, including English, Dutch, Malay, East Indian, and typical African, their several styles of costume no less various than themselves.

Some of our number, proceeding ashore, stood for the first time on foreign ground. Cape Town presented a series of wide, regularly arranged streets, intersecting each other, their sides sheltered by foliage trees. Flat-roofed houses, coated with white plaster, were nearly invariable in their uniformity. Great wagons, drawn by teams of oxen, from six to twelve in number—and even more—were being driven along by Malays, armed with whips of alarming proportions; though, fortunately for the beasts of burthen, they were little used. Crowds of pedestrians were on the thoroughfares, interspersed with guardians of the peace, the latter dressed alter the manner of their kind in London. It was the month of December; but the temperature was that of summer; the heat oppressive, as we continued our excursion.

Part of that excursion was to Constantia. On the right, the great mountain, rising to a height of three thousand feet; the space between its base and the road along which we drove thickly covered by forest and undergrowth, the whole comprising oaks, silver and other pines, geraniums, pomegranates, and heaths, interspersed with herbaceous plants bearing gorgeously coloured flowers. At intervals there were richly cultivated fields and valleys; on or near them attractive-looking houses, many having attached to the latter no less handsome gardens. The road was thickly occupied by vehicles and pedestrians; among the whites, a considerable proportion of well-looking individuals of the fair sex. There was, in fact, a general aspect of activity and of prosperity.

The ordeal of "reporting ourselves" to the authorities was gone through : our reception by one, whose surname indicated Dutch origin, ungracious and supercilious; by the departmental chief so kindly, as by contrast to make an impression upon us, but partially inured to official ways as we then were. Meanwhile, the necessary steps were in progress for placing on board our ship the much-needed supplies of food materials and of water.

Among vessels that anchored in the bay during our detention, there was the ship Lloyds, having on board emigrants from England to New Zealand. When first they began their voyage, they numbered eighty women and 117 children; but so appalling had been the mortality among them that, of the children, fifty-seven had died. In all parts of the space occupied by passengers, sickness and distress in various shapes prevailed. Children, apparently near to death, lay in cots by the side of their prostrate mothers, whose feebleness rendered them unable to give the necessary aid to their infants. A state of indescribable filth existed everywhere; ventilation there was none in the proper sense. Women and children affected with measles in very severe form, that disease having been brought on board in the persons of some of those embarking; others suffered from low fever, and some from scurvy, which had recently appeared among them. The family of the medical man on board had suffered like the others, one of his children having died. On the deck of the ship lay two coffins, containing bodies of the dead, preparatory to being taken on shore for burial. The entire scene presented by the ship, the saddest with which, so far, I had become acquainted.

In Table Bay we again met the Cambridge already mentioned, that vessel arriving shortly after our own had anchored. In a sense we, the passengers of both, greeted each other as old friends; visits were interchanged, then leave was taken of each other with expressions of good wishes. By-and-by there came to anchor the ship Nanking, having on board recruits belonging to the service of the Honourable Company. Greetings and cheers were interchanged; for were we not all alike proceeding on a career, hopeful indeed, but as yet uncertain?

In the Castle, a short distance from Cape Town, the 25th Regiment, or Borderers, was stationed, and in accordance with the hospitable custom of the time, an invitation to dinner with the officers was received on board. The party on that festive occasion numbered seventy, the majority guests like ourselves, and now the circumstance is mentioned as showing the scale upon which such entertainments were given.

Invited to the house of an Afrikander Dutchman, we found ourselves in large airy rooms, destitute of carpets, with polished floors; wall space reduced to a series of intervals between doors and windows; the arrangements new to us, but suited to climatic conditions of the place. Little attentions shown by, added to personal attractions of, lady members of the family naturally enough left their impression on young susceptibilities.

Very interesting also, though in a different way, was our visit to the house of Baron von Ludovigberg. Elegantly furnished, rooms so arranged as to be readily transformed into one large hall, everything in and around marking a life of ease and comfort. His garden, situated in Koif Street, extensive, elegantly laid out, with large collection of plants indigenous and foreign; at intervals fountains and ornamental lakes. In the latter were thousands of gold fish, so tame as to approach and feed from the hand of an attendant; to the sound of a handbell rung by him they crowded, though on seeing us they kept at a distance. To the sound of the same bell when rung by us they would approach, but not come near the strangers.

Our voyage resumed, away eastward we sailed. Sixteen days without noteworthy incident; then sighted the island of Amsterdam, from which point, as the captain expressed it, he began to make his northing.
Another interval of monotonous sea life. At daybreak we found that in close proximity to us was a barque, the Vanguard, on board of which there was disturbance amounting to mutiny among the crew. The captain signalled for assistance. A party of our young soldiers, under command of an officer, proceeded on board, removed the recalcitrant men to our ship, some of our sailors taking their place, and so both vessels continued their way to Calcutta.

Again was the unwelcome announcement made that short allowance of food and water was imminent, to be averted by progress of our vessel becoming more rapid than it 'had hitherto been. The tedium of the voyage had told upon us; idleness had produced its usual effect. Chafing against authority and slow decay of active good fellowship became too apparent; all were tired of each other.

Another interval. From the mast-head comes the welcome sound, "Land on the starboard bow." Soon we come in view of low-lying shore, over which hangs a haze in which outlines of objects are indistinct. What is seen, however, indicates that our ship is out of reckoning; that, as for some time past suspected, something has gone wrong with the chronometers. Wisely, the captain determines to proceed no farther for the present, until able to determine our precise position. A day and night pass, then is descried a ship in the distance westward. We proceed in that direction, and ere many hours are over exchange signals with a pilot brig.

Twenty-four weeks had elapsed since the pilot left us in the Downs; now the corresponding functionary boards our ship off the Sand- heads. We are eager for news. He has much to tell, but of a nature sad as unexpected. The envoy at Cabul, Sir William Macnaughten, murdered by the hand of Akbar Khan; the 44th Regiment annihilated, part of a force comprising 4,500 fighting men and 12,000 camp- followers who had started on their disastrous retreat from Cabul towards the Khyber Pass; one only survivor, Dr. Bryden, who carried tidings of the disaster to Jellalabad. Another item was that several officers, ladies, and children were in the hands of the Affghan chief.

Progress against the current of Hooghly River was slow, steam employed only while crossing the dreaded "James and Mary" shoal; for then tugs were scarce, their use expensive. Three days so passed; the first experience of tropical scenery pleasant to the eye, furnishing at the same time ample subject for remark and talk. On either side jungle, cultivated plots of ground, palms, bamboos, buffaloes and cattle of other kinds. In slimy ooze gigantic gavials; in the river dead bodies of animals and human beings, vultures and crows perched upon and tearing their decomposing flesh. Native boats come alongside; their swarthy, semi-naked crews scream and gesticulate wildly as they offer for sale fruit and other commodities. Our rigging is crowded with brahminee kites and other birds; gulls and terns swarm around. The prevailing damp heat is oppressive. Now the beautiful suburb of Garden Reach is on our right; on our left the Botanic Garden; the City of Palaces is ahead of us; we are at anchor off Princep's Ghat.

The "details," as in official language our troops collectively are called, were transferred to country boats of uncouth look, and so conveyed to Chinsurah, then a depot for newly arrived recruits. Our actual numbers so transferred equalled those originally embarked, two lives lost during our voyage being made up for by two births on board. Sanitation, in modern significance of the term, had as substitute the arrangements—or want of them—already mentioned; yet no special illness occurred; my first charge ended satisfactorily.


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